Tortas and Lomitos
I wouldn’t exactly call it an epiphany but Saturday I woke up (I’d like to say bright and early but it was more like 11:30am) with the strange and sudden urge to know more about Mexican food. Not just to eat it, that’s easy (despite all of the transplanted complainers who seem incapable of looking beyond lower Manhattan), but to cook it more too, maybe even learn more about the cuisine first-hand (I know Oaxaca is a gastronomic destination but I’m thinking Merida).
Just how a certain subset of white dudes seem unable to resist an Asian girl, I have a fetish for the food (though I rarely dabble in the Korean or Japanese realms). It’s illogical and uncontrollable. Maybe I’m drawn to noodle soups, dumplings and curries because of their very foreignness. Though by that logic I’d also be a goulash or fufu fanatic, which I’m not. I think it’s the complexity of a spice blend or layers of sweetness, salt and spice that appeal. How lots of mixed up tastes blend into something exciting. But that’s not unique to Asian cuisine.
My resistance to Latin American food, Mexican specifically, stems from the feeling that I should know more about it. I wasn’t really raised with it, it wasn’t served in local restaurants growing up and I certainly wasn’t handed down any kitchen wisdom from a knowing abuela (nor an Anglo mish-mash grandma—to this day, I can’t recall my mom’s mom who’s still very much alive, cooking anything, period, let alone notable. My only memories involve puffed wheat cereal from enormous 99-cent store plastic bags, slicing Neapolitan ice cream from a rectangular carton into slices with a knife, and a mock apple pie) and yet it seems really accessible. I mean, I could be south of the border in a few hours by plane and even communicate with people (on a very rudimentary level, to be sure) when instead, I fantasize about locales that are literally my polar opposite where chitchat is futile.
I think that’s the scary thing. No one expects a foreigner in Malaysia or Beijing to know everything or to be able to speak Malay or Mandarin. You risk looking like a stupid American even when trying your best. But cultural floundering feels more shameful in a country so nearby, and one with which I share a heritage.
While cobbling together ingredients in Sunset Park for dinner, I discovered that epazote is easy to come by while recado rojo is not (they even sell the Yucatecan paste on Amazon so it’s hardly obscure). I (or rather James) had to make it from scratch.
In the mean time, a torta was in order. We stopped at Ricos Tacos. My sugar and starch limiting means very few sandwiches in my life. But sometimes you simply need something gut-busting between two pieces of bread, in this case a fluffy bolillo. My pierna was a serious mess, only compounded by the copious amount of string cheese, avocado, beans, pickled jalapeños, and yes, mayonnaise, normally my nemesis. But just like with the banh mi, my aversion is waylaid by overall awesomeness.
I wouldn’t say that Ricos Tacos specialty are tortas, that’s just what I wanted. That might be the advertised tacos arabes, a take on schwarma stuffed into a pita. Maybe next time.
I can say that intrepid DVD hawkers know no ethnic boundaries. African-Americans tend to stick to subways and blankets strewn across sidewalks while Latinos and Chinese ladies prefer the restaurant-to-restaurant roaming approach. I have no interest in discounted copies of Hotel for Dogs, though that doesn’t stop genuinely interested others from completing transactions while eating.
What seems to be uniquely Mexican are roving bands setting up shop in tightly packed eateries. No stage or prior arrangements necessary; these are not Filipina entertainers. We happened to be sitting near the door, therefore entitled to an accidental front row seat when a five-piece band, accordion, stand up bass and all, decided to give the jukebox a run for its money. No one seemed to mind. There’s no way this wouldn’t wreak havoc anywhere else outside of a subway car.
Because one can never have too much pork (I’d already eaten two strips of bacon as breakfast), dinner was to be lomitos, based on a recipe from Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. This was thrifty because we used leftover scraps from the Super Bowl ribs that had to trimmed St. Louis style.
These were eaten with soupy black beans and corn tortillas. Simple. Not the prettiest, but tasty.
1 tablespoon simple recado rojo
2 tablespoons Seville orange juice or substitute
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or pork lard
12 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
2/3 cup finely chopped white onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 small head of garlic, unpeeled
1 whole habanero chile or any fresh, hot green chile
2 to 2 ½ cups cold water, approximately
Dilute the recado rojo with the orange juice and rub it into the pieces of meat. Set aside for about 30 minutes to season.
Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the tomatoes, pepper and onion together over fairly hight heat, stirring well and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and set aside.
Toast the whole head of garlic on a griddle or comal, turning it from time to time, until it is browned on the outside and the cloves inside are fairly soft. Toast the habanero chile.
Put the meat into a large, heavy saucepan with the water, which should barely cover the meat. Add the tomato mixture and the toasted, unpeeled garlic and chile and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the meat, uncovered, until it is tender—about 1 hour. (The sauce should be of a medium consistency; if it appears to be too watery, turn the heat higher and reduce quickly.) Serve hot.
I haven’t tried the tortas at Ricos Tacos (I think the actual name of the place is Piaxtla es Mexico), but their carnitas tacos, pozole and chilaquiles are pretty great.
I spent about a month in Merida two years ago for an anthropology field school, and had a great time eating out every day (though on a student budget, there was a lot of street and pub food – especially a nice little place called El Trapiche – and not so much with actual cuisine). It’s a gorgeous place to visit and I never really had any trouble with my complete lack of Spanish.
Stephanie: Good to know. It’s hard to say if I’ll actually end up in Merida in the near future, but for random reasons it’s on my would-like-to-visit list.
Want to know more about Mexican food? Add Mexico Cooks! to your blog roll. Find it at http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com. You won’t be sorry.
Cristina: I’m familiar with your site. It’s very useful since there aren’t a lot of English-language food blogs in Mexico (or most of Latin America). I’m planning a trip to Oaxaca for Nov. and can’t wait.